Call Any Vegetable

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I was orgiinally going to entitle this post “My Vegetable Love,” and but here’s why (and why not: This is a family blog). Hence the Zappa allusion, despite the conflation of proper names and proper nouns.

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the first day an amateur gardener can put plants in the ground, and the only time I violated that rule I lost my entire planting, because two solid days of cold rain rotted my seeds and I had to start over.

It did occur to me to ask what a vegetable was, so I could print a handy taxonomic diagram distinguishing vegetables not merely from animals and minerals, but all other plants. My hopes, however, were dashed. From Science Daily:

Vegetable is a culinary term.

Its definition has no scientific value and is somewhat arbitrary and subjective.

All parts of herbaceous plants eaten as food by humans, whole or in part, are generally considered vegetables.

Mushrooms, though belonging to the biological kingdom, fungi, are also commonly considered vegetables.

Since “vegetable” is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in referring to a plant part as a fruit while also being considered a vegetable.

Given this general rule of thumb, vegetables can include leaves (lettuce), stems (asparagus), roots (carrots), flowers (broccoli), bulbs (garlic), seeds (peas and beans) and of course the botanical fruits like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and capsicums.

(Science Daily quoting Wikipedia. What have we come to? From a University of California Cooperative Extension FAQ:

A vegetable is the edible portion of a plant. Vegetables are usually grouped according to the portion of the plant that is eaten such as leaves (lettuce), stem (celery), roots (carrot), tubers (potato), bulbs (onion) and flowers (broccoli).

(This is the answer to the first question, the hardy perennial, “1. What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable.” The second: “2. How can you tell when a watermelon is ripe?” The third, naturally, with all the amateurs out there, is “3. The leaves of my tomato plants are curled, the stems have bumps and the lower leaves turn yellow and fall off. Is something wrong?” (Yes.) These are the tomatoes which are properly fruits, or possibly not.) In any case, my boundary-testing question was: If I consume the bark of trees (e.g., hemlock), does that make that tree a vegetable? According to the University of California, yes, but according to Science Daily (citing to Wikipedia), no: A vegetable must be herbaceous, and trees, having permanent woody stems above ground, are not.

So vegetable love, had I mentioned it, would seem to be somewhat polymorphous, since surely bark — or, if you balk at bark, nuts — is (are) “an edible portion of a plant.” To top it all off, my Oxford English Dictionary — though beguilingly giving Marvell as a usage example — shamefully equivocates:


/ˈvɛdʒɪtəb(ə)l, ˈvɛdʒtə-/

adjective & noun. lme.

[ORIGIN: Old French (mod. végétable) or late Latin vegetabilis animating, vivifying, from Latin vegetare: see vegetate, -able.]

B. noun.

2. Any cultivated (usu. herbaceous) plant of which any part, esp. the leaves or root, is eaten in savoury dishes, freq. with meat or fish; such a plant prepared for the table. Cf. fruit noun 2. m18.

“Usu”[ally], for pity’s sake! And the coy “Cf. fruit.” One despairs. Who wrote this entry? Flashman?

In any case, this is obviously going to be a very silly and lazy post, because all I had in mind when I began it was finding some fun time-lapse photography of growing plants, because I got a nice reception (no thrown tomatoes, or trees) to this video of regrowth after the Australian fires:

As I said at the time, I found the above video hopeful, because only a year after the fires, plants were already growing, perhaps even thriving.

Here is a video of an entire field of squash:

I once had a squash grow all the way across the yard and up a pine tree, satisfying its tropism for sun; it was fun to see squash flowers and then squash entangled with the branches.

Here are some tomatoes. This video is not from seed, but I think it shows the “Let vines be vines!” nature of a really proper tomato patch. (I am a fan of stakes, but after they’re staked, I just let them go.)

Here is some spinach. For soil fans!

Here is the life-span of a strawberry:

Here is a tree; I like the random appearance of the dog (“Sara”):

Don’t, four years from now, be saying “I wish I’d planted some trees four years ago!” Think of your garden’s canopy from the beginning!

Here is a poppy, whose juice I suppose is edible after a fashion:

(Applicable to Armistice Day in the Commonwealth, if not Memorial Day here.)

And finally, here is a lawn (bad, bad) being replaced with sheet mulch, prepatory to creating a garden:

These are enthusiastic volunteers — not that kind of volunteer — but I was taught never to walk on the soil, let alone run a wheeled vehicle over it. Soil is a living organism, and you shouldn’t walk on it any more than you’d walk on a dog or a baby. Design your paths in from the beginning, and walk (and kneel) on the paths.

* * *

So those were some time-lapse videos of plants (suggesting a fun project for readers who find photography fun). What I love about the videos, and plants generally, is that they are always sensing light, air, water, their own weight, always active, always questing, always pressing “onward and upward,” only on a time-scale that is much slower than ours, so we don’t think of them as being vital or courageous, like animals. But they are!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Bugs Bunny

    In France, May 11 is jour du dégel – where you can expect that across the country you can plant without fear of frost. I planted some seedlings albeit odd ones – bitter gourd among them – on the May 5 and got burned. The rest of them are doing well. 6 sweet corn. Finally I’ll have some good corn in August.

  2. Psalamanazar

    There used to be a distinction between the rational, the animal and the vegetable. Hence, Swift’s ‘I … said within myself, Surely man is a Broomstick! nature sent him into the world … wearing his own hair on his head, the proper branches of this ​reasoning vegetable, until the axe of intemperance has lopped off his green boughs … ‘

  3. sd

    Pine tree – the inner soft layer is edible and used to make Swedish Pine Bark Bread
    Maple tree – I can’t live without maple syrup, preferably Grade B (former Vermonter)

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield

      I agree re Grade B maple syrup. So much more flavourful! And I also enjoyed birch syrup from Alaska, which I picked up when I took Mom on a roadtrip through Alaska to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2015.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        All that extra flavor comes from bugs and bacteria (well sort of). ;) Fancy light amber only for this former VTer and sugarmaker.

    2. jaaaaayceeeee

      I used to be able to get a grade d maple syrup when I worked for a natural foods manufacturer in the 1970’s and boy, their saving a penny was my transport to heaven! I think it gets darker the later in the season it is produced.

      I don’t think syrup is labeled ‘D’ anymore, I think it is now a more gourmet item, kind of like the darker, stronger flavored xtra virgin olive oil, and it is labeled ‘dark’ or ‘robust’.

  4. wilroncanada

    Planting day in much of Canada, for home gardeners, is Victoria Day weekend, one week to 10 days earlier than Memorial Day. When we lived on Salt Spring Island, and now, on Vancouver Island hard by the Salt Spring ferry, we plant between mid March and late May. We had to cover the tomato plants this year, after putting them out from the greenhouse into the ground on Victoria Day, because of a couple of nights where the temperature dropped to 7 and 8 celsius. Some of our friends on SSI used to try to plant peas and cole crops in February, not always successfully. In wet springs they would have to replant later.
    A calendar doesn’t tell a person when to plant, the weather does.

    1. Kurt Sperry

      Soil temperatures are probably the best single data point for successfully timing plantings.

  5. jef

    The heavy push of warm, 80+ degree air up from Siberia into the Arctic circle has pushed cool and clouds over into N America making this an interesting start to the growing season. Everything in the hoop house is doing great, tomato, eggplant, jalapeno, tomatillos, basille. Winterover plantings are doing better than ever, spinach, Kale, fava, some onion, garlic is best ever. late winter planting of onion, potatoe, strawberries, salad greens, are all very robust. Early vegetable planting has stunted or simply not germinated. All fruit has set very well.

    Central willamette here.

  6. clarky90

    My vegetables LIKE (as in “flourish”) as CO2 and temperatures increase. I am at my wit’s end! They mockingly call it, the “greenhouse effect”.

    Any advice from woke gardeners out there, please? I talk to them, and even try and communicate using “harmonic meditations”. I have explained to them (all the plants, not just the edible ones) about climate change………

    Thankfully, my plants are fervently anti-chemical insecticides/herbicides, and also, they despise any pollution. There must be some hope for these stubborn plants, even if they are so, intellectually, inferior to me?

  7. ChrisAtRU

    “Since “vegetable” is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in referring to a plant part as a fruit while also being considered a vegetable.

    Thank you! A wonderful long weekend post.

    1. MLTPB

      Since we are citing Wiki, I note in the entry for Tree there that ‘there is no universally recognized precise definition of what a tree is, either botanically or in common language.’

      To hug a tree is to hug a vegetable?

      Once you have hugged a lettuce, you will never go back to your salad days.

    1. ambrit

      Since he likes to hang out in basements, I’d say that he was a fungus. Still an honourary vegetable, so there is that.

    2. CoryP


      (Also, these videos were maybe the most hopeful hing I’ve seen all week. I need to get into horticulture like the rest of you folks)

  8. The Rev Kev

    Great collection of videos though I am sure that I spotted a cat in that video of the growing tree. We really do live in a different tempo compared to plants as show here. Michael Crichton wrote about how we misunderstand plants in his book “Jurassic Park”-

    “People were so naive about plants, Ellie thought. They just chose plants for appearance, as they would choose a picture for the wall. It never occurred to them that plants were actually living things, busily performing all the living functions of respiration, ingestion, excretion, reproduction—and defense.”

    If I had known how well my racehorse trees would grow and flourish, I would have taken weekly photos to put them together into a film stream.

  9. carl

    Down here in South Texas, the planting season is almost over. Not much is recommended until the last couple of weeks of August, the better to skip over the searing heat of the summer. I still have three varieties of kale, some celery, and chard to build salads on. The tomato plants are almost three feet tall and in a couple of weeks, will start fruiting. I have a forest of basil around them; hopefully, they will absorb some flavor from the herb. I’ve got a watermelon that’s about to take off and some zucchini and squash that will I hope will get a move on and produce. Some cherry radishes are coming up too, and my first pole beans and snap peas. Would recommend The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith for those interested in getting the garden going.

  10. polecat

    Our vegetables grow around/under/side-by-side all their ornamental friends – which really draw the pollinators! We have quite the crop of bumbles and other large bee species gliding around the surrounds this spring. Potatoe vine are vigorous, cherries have what looks like a good set. Carrots thinned. Hummers flitting amongst the Grevillia blooms. LOTs of Loganberry flower-clusters showing too.
    Humm … Loganberry Mead .. now doesn’t that sound just divine? A fine Nectar of the Gods?? I’ll ask the bees what they think of the idea.

  11. Hepativore

    Well, I am growing some tomatoes and peppers this year. I have always wanted to grow muskmelons and watermelons but I never had any luck with melons. The cucumber beetles are very bad here and they will kill the plants before you ever see a single fruit. I would break out the big guns in terms of chemical pesticides, but my landlord would never allow it. I am one of those people that tries to use pesticides sparingly, but in the case of some pests, you really do not have much of a choice.

    So for this year…

    Hillbilly potato leaf

    Each tomato has a different shape and color pattern inside and out. They are very versatile and can be used for almost anything.

    Orange Strawberry

    An orange variant of the German Strawberry tomato.

    Lemon Boy

    A classic medium-sided yellow tomato.

    Japanese Black

    An oddly-colored brownish-red tomato. Despite their strange appearance, they make very good sauce. Unfortunately, they are prone to tobacco mosaic virus. Still, I had quite a bit of luck with them last year so I am trying them again this year.


    Habanero (Yellow variant)

    This is a bright yellow cultivar of the infamous habanero pepper. I like the flavor of the pepper as they are strangely sweet in addition to being very hot.

    Sheepnose pimiento

    This is a nice pimiento-type pepper that is very sweet. However, do not make the mistake of eating it when it is green as they taste horribly bitter, then.

    Chocolate Beauty

    A large, thick-walled, blocky, bell pepper that tastes like a red, yellow, or orange bell pepper when fully ripe. Unfortunately, the brown color fades to greyish-green when they are cooked.

    So that is what I am growing this year in terms of vegetables as that is all that I have the space for on my landlord’s plot of land. Finally, I add this as a bonus, which is a floribunda rose that I used to have on my grandmother’s yard called Oranges N’ Lemons. If I could afford a house and my own land I would grow it again, but that will probably never come to pass.–rose-bush-orange-flowers.jpg

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The cucumber beetles are very bad here a

      I meant to say: I never had any trouble with bugs when I grew from seed. Then I got lazy — well, pressed temporally — and got flats at the Farmer’s market. Then I had bugs.

      So the moral is always grow from seed, and never buy flats.

      1. polecat

        Lambert. Many bugs (that includes beetles) have these things called ‘wings’. Come on man, they can move where flight takes em! Doesn’t mean you brought them home with your ‘purchase’.
        An example : I just recently brought home some lettuce starts, to spot in around the more established ones. Well, something really likes those little bundles of leafy crunch.. down to the crowns, leaving their larger green brethren alone with nary a bite! … doesn’t mean that ‘it/they’ .. whatever it/they were, hitched a ride home from the nursery.

      2. Kurt Sperry

        If you can limit yourself to old open-pollinated varieties, you can often make your own seed as well.

    2. EMtz

      All pests in my garden – potato beetles, squash beetles, grasshoppers, etc – are foiled by rough straw mulch which they hate to walk on plus insect barrier netting draped over metal support hoops and held down with earth staples. But to be effective you have to implement these barriers at the same time the plants go into the ground. With care, the netting will last for years, the hoops and staples forever.

      1. jaaaaayceeeee


        I live in northern California. Having come from New England, where you could plant as late as Lambert Strether, I soon learned that you can get annuals to live a couple of years with frost covers but they’re as expensive as insect barriers.

        Luckily, when I improved enough soil enough, I got lots of birds and spiders eating insects, I rotate the few veggies I grow to avoid some pests, grow my peppers and tomatoes in pots, skip beans, cucumbers, corn and squash at least a year to foil insect cycles, companion plant, etc.

        It’s amazing how much you can spend if you really want to take advantage of long growing seasons.
        I don’t have room for compost heaps and worm casting set ups. I finally found a garden center selling 20 year old cow manure from Oregon from a feed lot that fed only grass and barley finish, pre-antibiotic, etc. When that runs out I have to really get serious composting.

        How do you keep the cost of metal hoops and insect barrier down, EMtz?

  12. Grebo

    If it ain’t animal or mineral it must be vegetable.

    I’m just starting to dabble a bit myself. Planted some medjool date seeds I salvaged from a packet of dates in early Feb. Nothing for three months so I threw them out and reused the potting compost for some star apples. Apparently I missed one as now I have a palm sprout overtaking the star apple (all of which came up straight away). It must have needed light or dry or something else the instructions don’t mention. It’s a pity I threw the rest out as you need a male and a female to get dates, and you can’t buy them round here.

  13. Biologist

    Thank you Lambert, from bringing a smile with your botanical-culinary-etymological musings.

    But chili plants are not annuals in tropical areas (where they are from), they are woody perennials. Are they then not vegetables?

    Readers probably already know that fungi are more closely related to us than to plants (keep that in mind next time you order a vegan sandwich with mushrooms!). But did you also know that fungi buy and sell resources with microbes and plants in a complex underground commodity exchange market?

    I am actually doing some time-lapse photography of this spring’s plants–seedlings following the sun over the course of the day, cactus flowers opening and closing, our apple tree’s branches moving in the wind. Will post them in due course!

    1. james wordsworth

      When I have to go to the USA and eat in restaurants I joke when I get back that America only has two vegetables – french fries and ketchup. It is real tough to get decent vegies in most (but not all) US restaurants.

  14. Stephen V.

    Here’s the guy who was an early adopter of time-lapse and plants:
    He also later in life became interested in the health effects of light on hoomans.
    And today we learn in links that virus cannot withstand natural light.
    Then there’s the Vitamin D link with our immune system and possible correlation by country with low D and high rates of infection-
    (I hope that last is in this video. I’ve slept since then…)

  15. Eric

    Thank you Frank Zappa

    (This is a song about vegetables, they keep ya regular
    They’re real good for you)

    Call any vegetable Call it by name
    Call one today When you get off the train
    Call any vegetable And the chances are good
    Aw, The vegetable will respond to you

    (Some people don’t go for prunes… I
    Don’t know, I’ve always found that if they…)
    Call any vegetable Pick up your phone
    Think of a vegetable Lonely at home
    Call any vegetable And the chances are good
    That a vegetable will respond to you

    Rutabaga, Rutabaga,
    Rutabaga, Rutabaga,

    (A prune isn’t really a vegetable…
    CABBAGE is a vegetable…)

    No one will know
    If you don’t want to let them know
    No one will know
    ‘Less it’s you that might tell them so
    Call and they’ll come to you
    Covered with dew
    Vegetables dream, Of responding to you

    Standing there shiny and proud by your side
    Holding your hand while the neighbors decide
    Why is a vegetable something to hide?

    1. Tom Briggs

      Thanks Lambert for the Frank Zappa allusion.
      And thanks Eric for the lyrics.
      I’ve still got that Mothers album and
      will play again and again tonight.

  16. Carol

    Andrew Marvell said it before Zappa

    To His Coy Mistress

    Had we but world enough and time,
    This coyness, lady, were no crime.
    We would sit down, and think which way
    To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
    Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
    Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
    Of Humber would complain. I would
    Love you ten years before the flood,
    And you should, if you please, refuse
    Till the conversion of the Jews.
    My vegetable love should grow
    Vaster than empires and more slow;
    An hundred years should go to praise
    Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
    Two hundred to adore each breast,
    But thirty thousand to the rest;
    An age at least to every part,
    And the last age should show your heart.
    For, lady, you deserve this state,
    Nor would I love at lower rate.
    But at my back I always hear
    Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
    And yonder all before us lie
    Deserts of vast eternity.
    Thy beauty shall no more be found;
    Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
    My echoing song; then worms shall try
    That long-preserved virginity,
    And your quaint honour turn to dust,
    And into ashes all my lust;
    The grave’s a fine and private place,
    But none, I think, do there embrace.
    Now therefore, while the youthful hue
    Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
    And while thy willing soul transpires
    At every pore with instant fires,
    Now let us sport us while we may,
    And now, like amorous birds of prey,
    Rather at once our time devour
    Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
    Let us roll all our strength and all
    Our sweetness up into one ball,
    And tear our pleasures with rough strife
    Through the iron gates of life:
    Thus, though we cannot make our sun
    Stand still, yet we will make him run.

  17. Hepativore

    This thread needs some Talking Heads as well. David Byrne is another oddball that has some of the strangest subject matter ever put to music.

    Talking Heads – Nothing But Flowers

    Here we stand
    Like an Adam and an Eve
    The Garden of Eden
    Two fools in love
    So beautiful and strong
    The birds in the trees
    Are smiling upon them
    From the age of the dinosaurs
    Cars have run on gasoline
    Where, where have they gone?
    Now, it’s nothing but flowers

    There was a factory
    Now there are mountains and rivers
    you got it, you got it

    We caught a rattlesnake
    Now we got something for dinner
    we got it, we got it

    There was a shopping mall
    Now it’s all covered with flowers
    you’ve got it, you’ve got it

    If this is paradise
    I wish I had a lawnmower
    you’ve got it, you’ve got it

    Years ago
    I was an angry young man
    I’d pretend
    That I was a billboard
    Standing tall
    By the side of the road
    I fell in love
    With a beautiful highway
    This used to be real estate
    Now it’s only fields and trees
    Where, where is the town
    Now, it’s nothing but flowers
    The highways and cars
    Were sacrificed for agriculture
    I thought that we’d start over
    But I guess I was wrong

    Once there were parking lots
    Now it’s a peaceful oasis
    you got it, you got it

    This was a Pizza Hut
    Now it’s all covered with daisies
    you got it, you got it

    I miss the honky tonks,
    Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
    you got it, you got it

    And as things fell apart
    Nobody paid much attention
    you got it, you got it

    I dream of cherry pies,
    Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
    you got it, you got it

    We used to microwave
    Now we just eat nuts and berries
    you got it, you got it

    This was a discount store,
    Now it’s turned into a cornfield
    you got it, you got it

    Don’t leave me stranded here
    I can’t get used to this lifestyle

  18. MichaelSF

    Another vegetable song:

    The Association – Broccoli

    Broccoli (Broccoli)
    I really dig it steamed (Steamed)
    Broccoli (Broccoli)
    Just plain with cheese or cream (Cheese or cream, cheese or cream)
    I like to eat it with my mouth
    It tastes so good
    I like to eat it with my mouth
    It’s my favorite food
    Broccoli (Broccoli)
    It grows out from the ground (Ground)
    Broccoli (Broccoli)
    I even dig the sound (Sound)
    A favorite Atlantean dish
    They thought it was the end
    A favorite Atlantean dish
    I’m a-turnin’ you on, my friend
    I’m a-turnin’ you on, my friend
    Broccoli (Broccoli)
    I really dig it, really dig it steamed, yeah (Steamed, yeah)
    Broccoli (Broccoli)
    Just plain with cheese, plain with cheese or cream (Cheese or cream, cheese or cream)
    Aw, I like to eat it
    I like to eat it
    I like to eat it
    I like to eat it
    (They boys have asked me to say a few words about broccoli)
    (Well, I really don’t know a lot about broccoli)
    (But I do know what I like)
    (Broccoli is it)

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